Stephen Pimpare, author of a new book called A People’s History of Poverty in America (New Press). Pimpare is a professor of political science and social work at Yeshiva University here in New York. His previous book was titled The New Victorians: Poverty, Politics, and Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages.
While President-elect Obama has talked a lot about the middle class, there has been little said about the issue of poverty in this country. The economic crisis is likely to have a particularly devastating impact on poor Americans. The rising unemployment could push between seven and ten million Americans into poverty, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released Monday. Census Bureau figures from 2007 show that 12.5 percent of the population, or over 37 million people, live below the poverty line. The Center warns hat number could increase to up to 47 million. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
While President-elect Obama has talked a lot about the middle class, there has been little said about the issue of poverty in this country. The economic crisis is likely to have a particularly devastating impact on poor Americans. The rising unemployment could push between seven and ten million Americans into poverty, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that was just released. Census Bureau figures from 2007 show 12.5 percent of the population, or over 37 million people, live below the poverty line. That number could increase to up to 47 million, says the Center’s report.
My next guest is someone who’s been closely following the history of the poor and impoverished in the United States. Stephen Pimpare is the author of a new book called A People’s History of Poverty in America.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
Thank you, Amy.
It’s great to have you with us. Stephen Pimpare is a professor of American politics and social welfare policy at Yeshiva College. What is the history of poverty in this country?
Well, the way that the history of poverty is usually told is as much other history is told. It’s the history of great men and occasionally great women, right? So we’ll talk about Jane Addams or FDR or LBJ, or alternatively, we’ll talk about moments of state or national policy innovation. So we’ll focus on state-level innovations of the Progressive Era or of the New Deal programs of the 1930s or of the Great Society programs of the 1960s.
What I have done in this book is to ask, what happens if instead of asking “How has policy changed over time?” we invert our analysis and ask the question “How has the experience of being poor and in need changed over time?” And one of the consequences I argue of doing that is, among other things, instead of comforting ourselves with a relatively progressive story, a forward-moving story, an evolutionary story, that no matter how bad things may be at any given moment in time, they have in fact gotten better, what I argue is in fact the constants, the consistency of that experience of poverty over the course of American history has changed much less than we might like to believe.
Share some of the stories, because it’s really the color, the power of this book.
One of, I think, the things that comes through most clearly, if we actually listen to those who are facing dire need of one form of another and looking toward institutions, whether they’re public or private, familial or neighborhood, for some form of assistance, is the almost universal contempt and disdain for the manner in which they are treated by those institutions, the notion that they are poor through some of their own moral failings and that they need to be redeemed, that they need to be rehabilitated, that they need to be made respectable, normal, independent, that if we look at the experience of poor people over time, that independence is something that they hold very dearly, just as you or I would. What they’re fighting for is dignity, independence. Often what they are fighting for is access to a good job at a living wage that makes it possible for them to have some control over their own lives and some ability to support their families in the manner that they chose.
It’s perhaps some measure of how poorly we think — the narrowness with which we think about poverty that we focus our attention on welfare, which is absolutely essential as an interim measure while people are in between jobs, escaping abusive relationships, trying to find the means to put themselves through college. These are vital and essential programs as interim measures, but they’re used as interim measures. And the notion that poor Americans are looking for a free ride, that they’re looking for a welfare check so that they don’t have to work, is simply not borne out by the testimony they offer over and over and over again about the need for greater choice in their own lives, the ability to make their own decisions about how they’re going to put together that complex puzzle that is survival day to day.
Talk about surrender a culture of poverty.
We have historically understood poverty as moral failure. And, in fact, we have an entire sort of architecture of language we use to talk about this, the culture of poverty, the notion that there is either something inherent in individuals that leads them to be poor, some sort of moral, emotional, intellectual failing, or some sort of collective culture that is born and bred in poor communities, in which we pass poverty around almost as if it’s some sort of disease. I’m sorry, go ahead.
I was just wondering if you can say that the banks, that the elite in this country, suffer from a culture of poverty, that they expect, when they’re in difficult times, to simply be bailed out by the rest of America?
Well, I mean, to use another language, we could talk about it as entitlement. Right? The sense that what they do is so vital and so important. I mean, all this language about institutions and banks that are too big to fail, that whatever may have brought them to that pass, well, we need to set aside the causation there, we need to set aside — we can’t lay blame. The President-elect has himself said this any number of times. It’s not productive for us to look backward as to how we got here, we’ve got to look forward and understand how to solve the problem.
Do you think the situation has improved at all on how people view the poor this country and the situation for the poor in this country?
I think that, largely, the benefits of what we identify as the welfare state, right, the intervention particularly of a national government into the personal or household economy, that those benefits have largely accrued to what we would today identify as the middle class. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that, the fact that we have created greater ranges of opportunities, although this was mostly true in the 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s, and that we’ve backtracked from that since the 1970s.
But if we turn our attention to the most marginalized populations, those whose sets of skills and talents are least particularly well-suited to the particular moment of the economy at any given time, I would argue that their experience has in fact changed very little over time. If we look at the experience of, say, inhabiting a poorhouse in the 1600s or the 1700s and listen to the descriptions of those inhabitants about what it means to be confined in such an institution, and then turn our attention to people today describing the experience of living in a homeless shelter in the Bronx, I’m hard-pressed to identify how that experience differs in any significant way.
You quote the writer Ralph Ellison, saying, “We tell ourselves our individual stories so as to become aware of our general story.” What about the way the media conveys the poor?
Well, when there is any attention to poor Americans at all, it tends to be fairly predictable. There was a study done in late 2007 by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that looked at a three-year period of coverage on the major network news broadcasts of stories about poverty, food stamps and homelessness, and what they discovered — and this comes up again and again and again in other studies — is that when poor Americans appear in mainstream media stories, they are brought forth in order to tell generic stories of suffering, in the language that FAIR uses. But when we’re then turning our attention to what to do about poverty, we turn our attention to, well, people who look like me. Right? Academics, middle-class, well-to-do white men, policy experts, elected officials. But we discount the possibility that those very people who we identify for their suffering might have particular and useful knowledge about what solutions might look like.
Stephen Pimpare, I want to thank you very much for joining us. His book is A People’s History of Poverty in America.
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